If It’s Sunday in Southeastern Indiana, Order the Fried Chicken

WEST HARRISON, Ind. — If you see a steeple in southeastern Indiana, you can be pretty sure that fried chicken is nearby. If you see the steeple in West Harrison, about 20 miles from the Indiana-Ohio-Kentucky border, that chicken is fried across the street at St. Leon Tavern by the owner, Aaron Klenke. Most people would call the place a bar, but I call it a place that serves some of the best fried chicken I’ve tasted.

In this corner of Indiana, fried chicken is a part of the native soul — a staple of the after-church dinner and never very far from Sunday services.

“We call it chicken paradise,” said Janet Litmer, 60, manager of the Fireside Inn in Enochsburg. A common refrain here is “If the Colonel had been born in southern Indiana, he’d have been a general.”

Until my wife, the novelist Ann Hood, brought me to Greensburg, her father’s hometown, telling me I was about to have the best fried chicken of my life, I was certain that I made the best chicken I’d had in my life. To my delight, she was right.

So we returned recently to visit nine of the three dozen or so restaurants that serve a very specific form of a definitively American staple.

The secret to this fried chicken? Table salt, coarse pepper and flour. Those who want to gild the lily cook it in lard in a skillet.

In a food world that grows increasingly more complex, where fried chicken typically involves brining and buttermilking and all manner of seasoned flours, here are cooks whose chicken mirrors the economy and simplicity of the cornfields that surround them. (This year, those fields are covered in butterweed for endless miles; the heavy rains that have flooded the Midwest have left the soil too sodden to plant.)

“We don’t try to make it different from the way our grandmother did it,” said Ginger Saccomando, 69, who took over Wagner’s Village Inn, her parents’ restaurant, 21 years ago. A block away from the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis, it is one of two family-style restaurants serving southern Indiana-style fried chicken in Oldenburg, population 674.

This part of the state is a land of farms, churches and family-restaurant buffets. Order the fried chicken dinner, and it will arrive with mashed potatoes and gravy (and sometimes buttered noodles as well), canned green beans and coleslaw. The pedestrian sides only shine more light on the spectacular chicken.

“It’s the pepper,” confirmed Carisa Wells, 42, who tends bar at St. Leon. “If you don’t like pepper … ” she trailed off, shaking her head.

To learn the craft of southeastern Indiana chicken, I went to the person who I believe makes the best of the best: Chris Harvey, at Wagner’s.

“There’s no recipe,” Mr. Harvey, 48, told me as he worked six chickens in three 15-inch skillets on Memorial Day weekend. “Just salt and pepper till it looks right.” Dressed in a short-sleeve sweatshirt, jean shorts and sneakers, he can handle six pans, with 120 pieces, at once. By the end of the weekend, he had fried roughly 5,000 pieces of chicken.

While almost every other local restaurant deep-fries the chicken in soybean or vegetable oil, he uses lard. He said it was important to find lard without BHT, an antioxidant that prevents rancidity but leaves a bad aftertaste. And he makes the most of his lard, he said, adding to the supply so often that it stays fresh.

When the fat in a chicken-filled skillet got low, he dipped a pan into melted lard kept in a stockpot beside the stove and filled the skillet up nearly to the brim and kept on frying. When one pan of chicken was done, he removed the pieces, then emptied the pan — the fat, the “crumbs” at the bottom, and all — back into the stockpot of lard. The crumbs sank to the bottom, and would be used to flavor the roux base for making the gravy.

He then scraped the pan clean with a wide spackling knife and toweled it out until it was shiny and black, before refilling it with the used, golden-brown fat to fry the next batch.

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